A Passing Tradition: Annual Santa Train journeys through Appalachia

Roy, 89 and Nora Owens, 88, have been married 69 years this August. After serving in World War II, Roy had always found Nora beautiful and asked her to marry him. They have lived in Elkhorn City, Kentucky, since the 1920s and Roy has spent his whole life on the railroad. Roy said it really bothers him that they’re closing the railroad after 100 years, “I’ve grown up on this railroad, I’ve lived here all my life and they’re taking away a part of my life.”

Rachael Le Goubin

A Passing Tradition from Rachael Le Goubin on Vimeo.

Before the sun has even risen on the frosty Saturday before Thanksgiving, families gather at the Shelby train station in Shelbiana, Ky., waiting for the moment when Santa and his helpers embark on the 73rd annual Santa Claus Special, more commonly known as the Santa Train.

Steam rises from the mouths of shivering children but they are too busy yelling out for Santa to even notice the cold. Just after 6 in the morning, Santa begins tossing toys to awaiting families from the caboose of a CSX passenger train.  

Each year since 1943, the Santa Train travels 110 miles through the Appalachian Mountains and stops at 14 mountain towns in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. To many, it has become a much anticipated tradition over the years that signals the start of the holiday season.

“It’s tradition. It’s a tradition, we look forward to it,” said 64-year-old Wanda Osborne. “The Saturday before Thanksgiving we know the Santy Claus Train is coming. We’ve always looked forward to it.”

Osborne, who has lived her entire life in Dante, Va., recalls countless experiences with the Santa Train, each year spent growing up in the coal mining town. But the train never stopped, she said.

“You lined up on the tracks, and they would throw candy and dolls as they went by. Santy was at the back of the train constantly, throwing stuff out to the children,” she said.

Now, for about 15-20 minutes at 14 scheduled stops, Santa and volunteers deliver roughly 17-tons worth of toys, candy, backpacks and many more items to waiting families.

Everette Allen, a retired CSX mechanic, has been riding the Santa Train for 41 years as it snakes along the Clinchfield Railroad line.

“It’s a great, great thing to see all the kids and their faces when they receive something from Santa Claus. Many of (the people) have come for many, many years,” Allen said. “Back in the early years…you would see kids that really, really desperately needed something for Christmas. It would break your heart; you couldn’t help but cry when they got a toy.”

Times have changed since then, but there are still children who come to the Santa Train whose parents and grandparents cannot afford to buy Christmas gifts.

“This is all they will get for Christmas. Some around here, they don’t have nothing. What they get, they get off the Santa Train,” Osborne said.

Since the coal mines closed, people in those Appalachian towns have lost their entire livelihood. It is clear to see, as the midnight blue locomotive weaves its way past dilapidated buildings, the broken infrastructure that has come from that loss.

As the train makes its stops, however, there is a tangible excitement in the air, bringing a burst of life to the areas.

Roy Owens, 89, has lived in Elkhorn City, a popular stop on the Santa Train, since the 1920s. He said he has spent his whole life on the Clinchfield Railroad, working the Santa Train from when it began in 1943 up until his retirement in 1980.

The railroad itself has always been an important part of his life, he said, and the Santa Train was something to look forward to every year.

“I look for this to be the last year,” Owens said. “They’re talking about closing down the Clinchfield Railroad. That’s 100 years of railroad they’re doing away with. It really bothers me. I was brought up on the railroad, I’ve lived on it all my life. So to see it go on like that it bothers me no little amount.”

With the railroad closing, this may be the last year the Santa Train runs and the people along the 110-mile stretch of the railroad will be without a very important tradition.

“All of our traditions are going,” Osborne said. “Since the coal mines are closing our traditions are leaving us.”

Along the line, everyone seemed to agree that without the Santa Train, something will be missing from these Appalachian towns and the holiday season.

Contact Rachael Le Goubin at [email protected].